Choosing a subject

How do biographers choose their subjects? Why do they make the choices they do? David Marr (1980), for example, chose Barwick as a case study, because he did not like or admire him. It seems that his was not an isolated case; Edmund White has noted that ‘biography is a form by which little people take revenge on big people’ (cited in Britain 2003). Yet Marr admitted that through his examination of Barwick, he ended up having more sympathy for his subject than he expected. Other biographers choose subjects because they knew them intimately — and liked them. Bob Hawke’s biographer, Blanche d’Alpuget (1982), is a conspicuous example of this, in that she later became his wife. An earlier instance of a different type is L.F. Crisp’s Ben Chifley ( 1961 — see Day 2002: 39). Tim Rowse (2002) was acquainted with his subject, Nugget Coombs. This led to a work that has been called ‘a fine intellectual biography’ but one that sheds very little light on the personal side of the subject under study, because of the author’s personal promise to the subject under investigation, another reviewer was led to comment, ‘a fascinating book, but is it a biography of Coombs?’ (Kirby 2002:102; and Nethercote 2002: 104). In the acknowledgments Rowse explains why his biography is very much about the public life of Nugget Coombs:

Coombs’ deposited papers do not include items that reveal what he considered to be his private life … my consent to Coombs’ public/private boundary restrained me from exploring that theme very far. The resulting book is more impersonal than most readers of biographies would wish (Rowse 2002: viii).

Subjectivity, bias and motivations for writing a biography are important considerations when choosing a subject.

Most biographies begin by placing the subject in context. In biographies of politicians this includes an explanation as to why the subject is worthy of further study. For example, one of Geoffrey Bolton’s tasks when writing the biography on Edmund Barton was to explain or justify Barton as an important historical figure. Through this sort of engagement, the biographer can find him or herself breaking down the established myths that exist about politicians. In Barton’s case this added more substance to the character than was commonly known, for he had earned the reputation of someone who largely enjoyed good food, good wine and convivial company. Bolton’s book, by contrast, portrayed Barton as ‘the man for the job’ — right for his time.

I face a similar challenge in writing a life of Arthur Fadden. Part of the research aims to explore why this individual, Fadden, described as a humorist and as a ‘hail fellow well met’ type of person, and often largely unnoticed or at best regarded as a bit player in history, is worthy of deeper political analysis. In the case of Arthur Fadden questions about how he maintained a key leadership role for 18 years, some of which were difficult for a still rocky coalition, have so far gone unanswered. He is mentioned in indexes of other books written on the era — once again parodied as a friendly, avuncular figure but with little substance added. Arthur Fadden was elected to the Queensland Legislative Assembly in 1932. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1936 where he remained for twenty-two years until retirement in 1958. After only four years he was appointed to the coalition ministry and was soon Treasurer. In 1940 Fadden was the compromise candidate who won the leadership of the Country Party, a position he retained for the next eighteen years notwithstanding the presence of such heavyweights as Jack McEwen. In 1941 he became prime minister in his own right following the resignation of Robert Menzies — a position he held for a brief and stormy period until his budget was rejected on the floor of the House of Representatives, the only government to be defeated on its budget. As Leader of the Opposition, 1941-1943, he worked closely with Prime Minister John Curtin and his own successor as Treasurer, Ben Chifley.

In the 1940s Fadden and Menzies forged a working relationship that enabled the coalition parties to emerge as a viable alternative to the Labor Party. In 1949, by way of vigorous campaigning on petrol rationing, and his strident politicking against communism, Fadden was instrumental in securing an electoral victory. He regained the Treasury — the second (and last) Country Party member to head that department.[7] His record as Australia’s longest serving Treasurer (around 3620 days) was exceeded for the first time by Treasurer Peter Costello in February 2006.

Political biography provides one set of tools by which to explore history and events from within the temporal and historical context of one life. It allows exploration of the events of history — from a micro perspective — looking at them through the eyes of someone who lived, breathed and was part of that history. No approach is all-embracing. There are difficulties in this methodology. What biographers have — unless they are lucky enough to be working with a live and cooperative subject — are the official records, speeches made, occasional letters deposited in the archives, and personal accounts, mostly written by others. Having a cooperative subject, however, may introduce another set of problems those concerned with hagiography: bias, subjectivity and sometimes even honour. Recent biographies which have been seen to experience these problems are d’Alpuget on Hawke and Barnett & Goward on Howard. Promises made to the live subject are hard to break even in the later event of their death, as Tim Rowse’s work on Nugget Coombs exemplifies.